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Around The Fleet

On the Forefront of Innovation

Sailor serves as catalyst for innovation movement

"Man overboard!" The unthinkable can happen in a heartbeat, and an underway can go from routine to disaster. It can take hours to find a Sailor who has gone overboard, if he or she is found at all. The cold reality is that many Sailors have been lost at sea, and it is often an unnecessary cause of death in this day and age.

Man overboards have plagued the Navy since its inception, and the method of retrieving Sailors is essentially the same today as it was 100 years ago. New technology may change that, however, improving preventative measures and responsiveness.

That technology is the unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly referred to as UAV, which Lt. Cmdr. Christopher Keithley wants to utilize to save Sailors' lives during man overboards.

As a submarine officer, Keithley is aware of the challenges when a Sailor goes overboard. The entire ship is called into action to ensure the missing Sailor is identified and found before too much time has passed. Keithley himself has performed numerous man overboard drills. His idea came to him when he was learning about UAV technology and the many things it can do.

"It can be very difficult to find low profile objects from a submarine, especially when you're using your own eye balls to cue in and find the guy and drive your ship toward him," said Keithley. "The idea came out of that. Why don't we have a UAV that could launch, go find the guy and automatically keep over him and provide visual cueing so the boat can drive toward that UAV?"

The technology already existed in bits and pieces, he concluded. It's only a matter of time before it is implemented out in the fleet as an efficient and cost-effective way to not only save lives, but also to make shipboard life easier and more efficient, he explained.

With today's UAVs, we could also have the ability to drop light payloads for the Sailor, maybe even an auto-inflate life jacket." -- Keithley

The next step was turning his idea into reality.

The innovation laboratory (iLab) out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, is an unclassified space where engineers prototype commercial technologies and generate ideas for low-cost solutions to fleet training and operational challenges. The team provided the necessary resources for Keithley to begin to develop his concept.

He took an active part in testing how a hypothetical man overboard rescue could go if assisted by a UAV, for example.

"I actually got in the water in Hawaii here and swam out, and they flew a UAV over me to see what it would look like," he said.

Keithley's chain of command encouraged him to present his ideas at "The Bridge" event this past spring. The Bridge is Commander, Pacific Fleet's initiative to create a culture of change, inspiration and creativity that will encourage all Sailors to voice their ideas of how to better the Navy.

"We were able to take that [research], film it and package it up for a brief to the Pacific Fleet Bridge, and we ended up winning," said Keithley.

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This was an opportunity for him to meet other innovators and people committed to moving the Navy forward.

"It has been a great learning experience," Keithley continued. "It seems like we are discovering new avenues for collaboration or new people we should talk to on a nearly weekly basis. It has also been iterative, in that we have gone down a series of paths that have dead-ended, only to branch out to numerous new opportunities. From idea generation, pitch and briefing to working on actual demos with private industry and the University of Hawaii, it has truly been a uniquely formative experience."

The extensive exploration into this technology has sparked other new ideas as well, and researchers have discovered new possibilities for UAVs. Keithley is excited to imagine all of the possibilities that could come out of his idea.

Based out of Pearl Harbor, iLab harvests deck-plate level ideas and brings them to reality. Keithley hopes to see his idea introduced to the fleet in the near future, as well as many other projects that will help make the fleet a safer, more efficient force.

Editor's Note: To learn more about the iLab, read "The iLab: Where Sailors and innovation meet." If you have an idea you think will benefit the Navy, you can submit it to iLab at